Social Distancing on the water

Sunday, we expanded our horizons for safe-distance recreation: we took a paddle trip. 

We’ve been walking, walking, walking our neighborhood for the past little bit (check out our Morning Walk with Joe on Facebook Live every morning at 7:30). But Sunday, the weather was grand — sunny, with temperatures in the mid-80s — and it seemed that time on the water would be restorative. And a safe and responsible way to get out.

It was, and it was.

Some of the most peaceful times I’ve known have been on the water. You’re paddling a lake on a summer’s day, you pull up in a shaded cove, put the paddle down, flop your legs up onto the boat deck, close your eyes. A light breeze, the water gently lapping your bow, that feeling of warmth that flirts with but doesn’t achieve sweaty heat. Your mind drifts in a variety of directions, none of them, in my experience, disturbing. It’s one of nature’s best avenues of escape. 

It was safe and responsible as well. We put in at the Eno River boat access off Red Mill Road in Durham. We love this spot because you can paddle upstream or down. Paddle downstream and shortly you meet the Flat River on your north and the confused beginnings of Falls Lake. Though the lake appears well defined on a map, it’s actually a morass of small islands intertwined with tight passages through choking vegetation giving way to small pocket lakes. Scenic, but remember to take a map and compass (or have Google Maps at the ready).

Upstream is how I usually go. Up the Eno, under Red Mill Road, past a couple of collecting points, to the Little River and it’s journey from the north, to Old Oxford Highway and Penny’s Bend, where progress is typically thwarted by the first of several rock gardens that mark Eno’s transition from backed up flatwater to spritely and mischievous creek. We paddled just past Red Mill Road, hung out in an eddy for a while, then slowly let the current helps us back to the boat ramp. It was just the relief we needed.

The boat ramp, both putting in and taking out, was busy with a mix of paddlers and folks fishing from power boats. It was also one of the most socially distanced places I’ve recreated during the pandemic. People were patient about not overcrowding the boat ramp, either to put in or take out. People were also good not to dillydally at the ramp: do your business, move on. And why lose patience, anyway? We were all just glad to be out in a world familiar to us that hadn’t changed. A world we hope remains open.

Where to, how to

A few quick things if you’re interested in getting out on the water during this time of Social Distancing.

NC Wildlife Resource Commission boat ramps. So far, the only COVID-19-related closures have been to restroom facilities; the boat ramps remain open (unless they’d been closed for unrelated reasons). Find the location of the WRC’s more than 200 boat access points here. You can also find a list of accesses closed for other reasons at this same site.

N.C. State Parks. It takes a little more digging to find out what boat access points remain open. As of Sunday, March 29, 25 state parks had completely closed. Some parks, with boat access, remain open. Merchants Millpond, for instance, still appears to allow access to the 760-acre millpond. You’ll need your own boat, though: the canoe rentals are closed. Jordan Lake in the Triangle area has four boat access areas open: Ebenezer Church, Seaforth, New Hope and Robeson Creek. Check the NC Parks website, here, for the latest.

Municipal and county access. Again, it’s a mixed bag. Parks across the state have been required to close their main facilities: rec centers, restrooms, pools, boat houses. In some cases (Durham, for instance), they’ve also closed boat access points. In others, there’s still access, but with modifications. In High Point, for instance, you can still put in your own boat on Oak Hollow Lake and High Point City Lake, with the launch fee paid over the phone. Again, call to check the status of your local launch before heading out.

Practice socially responsible boating. The folks at have come up with their guidelines for safe paddling in the age of Social Distancing. Check ‘em out here. And for more on the benefits of paddling, check out this article from Paddling Magazine.

Need a boat?

Unfortunately, if being on the water sounds good but you don’t have a boat, well, that’s a challenge right now. Usually around this time you start to see boat rentals popping up, at lakes and through outfitters. That’s not happening. Your options for buying a boat are also limited. One option: a big box that sells groceries — and that also sells other stuff, like recreational gear. Your choices will be limited — to one, likely — but it will likely be an entry-level boat. Our friends at Great Outdoor Provision Co. can also help you out. They stock an array of kayaks, from fishing kayaks to sit-on-tops to the kind of recreational kayak you’re likely looking for. Learn more about their recreational kayaks here, their canoes and kayaks in general here. And while they are currently closed, they will have gear available on their online store starting Friday. Look for news on their web site here.

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